Birding sustains a grieving 15-year-old’s memories of his dead mother while connecting him to fellow high-school enthusiasts in “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” tyro helmer Rob Meyer’s gentle coming-of-age road movie. A well-matched quartet of teens, plus a scene-stealing Ben Kingsley and a befuddled James LeGros, keep the action rolling on two fronts as, on the day before his father’s wedding, our hero and his friends embark on a hunt for a purportedly extinct species of wild duck. More organically tied to nature’s wonders than 2011’s raucous birder comedy “The Big Year,” this amiable teen laffer, remarkably free of snark, could score with general auds.
A year-and-a-half after his mother’s death, David Portnoy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is still struggling to come to terms with his loss. He’s still haunted by memories of childhood birding in the woods, his mother conveyed as more of a benign presence than a fully visible entity. His father (Le Gros), on the other hand, has definitely decided to move on; he’s engaged to his dead wife’s nurse (Daniela Lavender) and largely unaware of the depths of his son’s trauma.
Then suddenly, just down the road, David spots what might be a Labrador duck, a species believed extinct for a hundred years. He sets off in pursuit with the other two members of his high school’s Young Birders Society: Timmy (Alex Wolff), a would-be Casanova whose aggressively racy talk conceals a certain shyness, and Peter (Michael Chen), an uptight, by-the-book type whose unruffled conservatism hides a wilder side. Pretty young shutterbug Ellen (Katherine Chang) tags along to record their finds. All this on the eve of David’s father’s wedding, where he is expected to serve as best man.
En route, the intrepid teen adventurers encounter famous birder Lawrence Konrad (Kingsley), who extols David’s mother as an unsung heroine of birding and later shows up in the paid company of two ruthless bird listers. (The film makes a crucial distinction between those who watch birds as a means of communing with nature and those who merely seek self-aggrandizement by racking up substantial species counts.)
The trek also affords David his first real interaction with a female of his own species, a socialization process that eventually enables him to accept his dad’s remarriage. The constant, genial comic undercurrent of teenspeak exchanges, penned by the writing team of helmer Meyer and Luke Matheny, contrasts satisfyingly with Kingsley’s wry musings and the more serious treatment given to David’s evolving maturity.
Meyer and lenser Tom Richmond capture an intersection of high-school and natural spheres that highlights New England’s serenity and beauty without undue pictorial fussiness. The camera circles as kids excitedly aim their binoculars at the warbling, hopping, perched and flying beauties around them, the young birders’ faces alight with shared discovery.